Street Musicians

“First I must explain how our quartet used to do its hustling so as to attract an audience. We began by walking down Rampart Street between Perdido and Gravier. The lead singer and tenor walked together in front followed by the baritone and the bass. Singing at random we wandered through the streets until someone called to us to sing a few songs. Afterwards we would pass our hats and at the end of the night we would divvy up.”
Louis Armstrong, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans
        
Before Louis Armstrong ever learned to play a horn, he worked as a street performer. In New Orleans, the public thoroughfare still serves as a stage, and the city continues a rich tradition of street entertainers.

The sidewalks, or in local parlance, banquettes (pronounced “BANK-its”) of Storyville saw a host of musicians, including Emile “Stalebread” Lacoume and his Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band of youngsters with homemade instruments. In just such ways the city’s own popular music, which would be called jazz, developed directly in the public eye.

Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and the late Tuba Fats were both street performers at times in their careers. The Rebirth and Dirty Dozen brass bands also spent some time playing on the streets. And Babe Stovall, a blues guitarist, was discovered playing on a French Quarter corner back in the 1960s.

Bruce Raeburn, curator of the Hogan Jazz Archives at Tulane University, notes that great performers have recently been heard on New Orleans streets. “Scott Kirby is a great ragtime piano player – he used to roll his piano out on the sidewalk. He’s in England now. Darlene Ketchums is a great clarinetist.”

Jack Stewart mentions another street band: “Loose Marbles. They’re absolutely fabulous,” he says. This traditional jazz band can be heard on the Royal Street mall. Other bands he lists included Kokomo Joe, who plays an instrument made with a square cooking oil can, along with a banjo player who “looked like Truman Capote. He made the announcements with a strainer that he held up like a microphone.”

One well-known non-musical act was that of magician Harry Anderson, who plied his trade on French Quarter Streets long before he gained television fame on Night Court.

Numerous street performers are currently active in New Orleans, and a Web site, www.buskersadvocates.org, lists several in the city. Street entertainers are known as “Buskers” in England – but it’s a term also used in the U.S.

 In some other cities in this country, such as Boston, they may be required to have licenses to perform. Many performers move in a circuit.

Peter Bennett is best known around Jackson Square for playing a “glass harmonica.” He describes it as “27 water-tuned goblets forming a chromatically arranged instrument that spans two octaves and a major second.” Gently touching the rims of his glasses with damp fingers, Bennett coaxes out pleasant music in a variety of styles. He has been working in the city for about 12 years.

When interviewed by e-mail, Bennett was on the road in California. He plans to return to New Orleans, where he lives about a block and a half from where he plays at Jackson Square.

A native of New York state, Bennett had some musical training at Syracuse University, plus “50 years of practical experience playing 20 different instruments, and lessons from innumerable great and, sometimes, not so great teachers.”  His most requested tune? Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” His worst nightmare? “Having a drunk stumble into my supremely fragile instrument.”

David Leonard and Roselyn Lionhart perform as “David and Roselyn” on the corner of Royal and St. Louis streets on weekends.

Roselyn explains, “David plays guitar, harmonica and trumpet, and I play African finger piano, banjo, guitar, mandolin and the rumble box or morimbula [a bass version of the finger piano].” She is also a singer.

The couple met when David was in an Air Force band in Texas and Roselyn was with a singing group. They have lived in New Orleans for about 20 years, play the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival regularly, are available for other local gigs and they find time to travel. “We were in Japan this winter, and we were in California in June. The farthest away we ever played was Melbourne, Australia.”

Roselyn admits that her favorite request is “Kiss It and Make It Better.” It is a song she wrote herself, and it’s been used in a commercial in England.

The couple has four children. Their daughter Arlee is a singer (“she’s getting ready to go to Russia”) and daughter Autumn is in graduate school studying film at the University of Texas at Austin. Son David lives here and daughter Adrian is in California.

Street musicians have occasionally stumbled into legal difficulties on French Quarter streets. (There is a rumor that Trombone Shorty was arrested the same week his picture adorned the cover of a tourist magazine.) When they do have legal problems, musicians depend on attorney Mary Howell.

Howell treasures New Orleans’ musical heritage, collecting memorabilia on what were sometimes called “Street Serenaders.”

“Apparently people have been playing music in the streets as long as there has been a city here,” Howell says. Since 1977, she has been taking the musicians’ side in court cases, when their playing on the streets has led to their arrests. Howell has been successful in keeping the musicians playing.

“Over the course of 30 years I think we’ve had four city ordinances and one state statute declared unconstitutional,” she notes. She is proud of her work on their behalf: “You go to other places and they try to create what we already have here – some cities pay people to create this cultural life!”

At present, according to the French Quarter Citizens Association President Coco Patterson, street musicians aren’t a pressing problem. Howell credits this to hard work with musicians, local residents and business owners, law enforcement and city officials who have set reasonable sound levels, and have made sure St. Louis Cathedral’s services aren’t disturbed by outside music.

New Orleans police officer Roger Jones is the Quality of Life officer in the French Quarter, and he keeps a careful ear on local players. At the moment things are harmonious, for the most part. “It’s an extraordinary thing for all the tourists,” he admits. “You have a problem with one or two musicians who might get disrespectful of business owners, but complaints are few and far between. You have a lot more musicians who have a great relationship with the owners of the shops – it’s a symbiotic relationship, after the music, the tourists turn around and say ‘hey, let’s check out this shop!’ – everybody wins.”

Jones’ favorites? “Pops – the elderly black guy with a white beard. He plays the harmonica on the corner of Royal and Toulouse streets.”

Officer Jones also likes a singing group. “There’s four or five of them. They’ve been there for about 10 years, just on weekends, in the 100 block of Royal Street. They were in the Double Jeopardy movie with Tommy Lee Jones.’“

It’s good to know that so many people keep up with Louis Armstrong’s tuneful idea!

Categories: Chronicles

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